Touching Home in China: In Search of Missing Girlhoods – Interview With Melissa Ludtke

When I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, two of my closest friends happened to be adopted from Korea. Our parents were close with their parents, which meant many weekend visits and sleepovers and dinners together. Some of my fondest childhood moments were shared with these girls. We binge-played Atari video games, stayed up late watching “Real Genius”, and bopped our heads to videos on MTV.

But tucked among the Run DMC and Tom Cruise pictures in their rooms were posters of Korean dancers dressed in silk hanbok, their arms and hands curled with all the elegance of ballet dancers. The word “Korea” was printed on the bottom of the posters, the most prominent reference in their rooms to where they were born.

I never asked them about their experience of being adopted from Korea, and they never mentioned it in conversations. But in retrospect, I wonder what they might have told me, had we ever talked about it, and wonder what they thought about their birth country.

So it was fascinating for me to discover the transmedia storytelling project Touching Home in China: in search of missing girlhoods, created by Melissa Ludtke, Julie Malozzi and Jocelyn Ford.

Through words, photos and videos, it tells the story of two American adoptees abandoned as newborn girls who return to China to discover what it might have been like for them to grow up there. At the same time, Touching Home in China gives audiences a personal look into the lives of girls and young women in contemporary China, including the challenges they face.

It is my honor and pleasure to introduce you to Touching Home in China through this interview with Melissa Ludtke. Here’s Melissa’s bio from the website:

In her award-winning career as a journalist, producer and author Melissa Ludtke reported at Sports Illustrated, was a correspondent with Time, and the editor of Nieman Reports at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Her lifelong engagement with girls and women’s issues led her to write On Our Own: Unmarried Motherhood in America (Random House, 1997). She intends to write a narrative social history of the 1970s women’s movement, drawing from her experience as plaintiff in the federal case Ludtke v. Kuhn. That case secured equal access for women to report, as male reporters did, in Major League Baseball locker rooms.

Touching Home in China has been featured on in Adoptive Families magazine, Ochre, as a PRI Podcast, “Whose Century Is it?” and as a cover story in Wellesley magazine. You can visit the website at Touchinghomeinchina.com and follow the project on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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What inspired you to start this project?

Simple answer: Listening to and watching the girls, the two American adoptees and six Chinese girls who in getting to know each other as teens (in the two towns in Jiangsu Provice where the Americans had been abandoned as newborns) created a rare cross-cultural dialogue that I felt could serve as the foundation for multimedia, narrative storytelling.

Idea for spending time with girls in my daughter’s “hometown” was mine, shared with my daughter, Maya, and then by Maya with her orphanage crib neighbor and longtime friend, Jennie, who expressed interest in doing this, too. Maya and I had made a three-week trip back to China when she was 7 years old, and one morning we’d had our guide bring us to the police station in Xiaxi and then briefly into the town. As I describe in the story Touching Home, I had not prepared Maya (or myself) for this pop-in visit in Xiaxi, and our brief foray into the marketplace frightened Maya (as people grabbed at her and walked to talk with her in Chinese.) Here’s how I tell this story in our project:

Maya was seven years old when I brought her back to China for the first time. We spent most of our three weeks there doing things tourists do. But toward the end of our trip, we traveled by train to Changzhou. I wanted Maya to visit her orphanage. After what I felt was a good visit there, I had the idea of taking a trip to Xiaxi Town. That morning our driver parked the car on Xiaxi’s main street, and Maya and I got out to walk through its bustling outdoor market. The merchants and customers stared at us. We were an odd pair that left a disconcerting impression. There I was, a woman with blonde hair and white skin, a rare sight for them other than on TV, and I was holding hands with a Chinese girl whose expression said, “I’m scared.” Likely, many wondered if I had kidnapped her.

A few people approached Maya and spoke in a language she didn’t understand. Perhaps they were asking if she was okay. She froze, unable to say “hello” as she’d done routinely in China. Maya gripped my hand tightly, and as she did I knew we had to leave. After completing the oval path past stalls of vegetables, meat and fish, we went directly to the car. Take us to our hotel in Changzhou, I asked our translator to tell the driver. That afternoon, Maya and I stayed in our room. She didn’t want to go out. In thinking over what had happened in Xiaxi, I knew that what I wanted most for Maya was for her to return to Xiaxi on her own one day — and feel less of an outsider when she did.

Now 16 years old, Maya is in Xiaxi spending time with girls her age. I’m staying behind in Changzhou. This is Maya’s journey to make, not ours.

Two other factors are part of our decision-making about this trip and eventually the project that emerged out of it:

I’ve been a journalist for more than four decades, and for many of those years I reported on girls, women, families and children for Time magazine. And prior to my stint at Time, I’d been a baseball reporter at Sports Illustrated and ended up as the plaintiff in a well known federal case that challenged Major League Baseball to provide equal access for women reporters to the locker rooms (Ludtke v. Kuhn). So as a journalist and a mom, I do a lot of thinking about the lives of girls and women (along with my early activism in the court case), and so to me it seemed a fascinating path of inquiry for my daughter to find out what her life might have been had her family not abandoned her, most likely, due to her being a girl but rather raised her a daughter in 21st century rural China.

No better experts to turn to, I felt, than the Chinese girls who had lived this experience in the town where my daughter was abandoned. When Jennie asked to join our journey, with the help of Chinese journalists who are friends I reached out to find girls to be her guide there, too.

Finally, my mom had recently died and a small amount of inheritance was coming my way. (I mean small.) My mom was trained as an anthropologist and had devoted her research to the study of women’s lives in the Portuguese speaking islands of the Atlantic Ocean. (She wrote a book about her research called Atlantic Peeks.) Instead of putting this money aside in my savings, I decided to use my mom’s gift to me as a gift to Maya and other adoptees and I hired a videographer – Jocelyn Ford, former Marketplace bureau chief in Beijing who had left that job to shoot her own documentary, Nowhere to Call Home. We were introduced by a mutual friend of ours, a fellow Chinese journalism in Beijing, but it didn’t take us long to find out we grew up in the same town, Amherst, MA, and our fathers each taught at U. Mass Amherst. (Jocelyn, who is younger than me by about a decade was on the gymnastics team with my two younger sisters.) Felt like the Red Thread at work!

Why did you choose to introduce this topic through personal stories?

As a reporter for Time magazine, I often would seek out personal stories to exemplify issues revolving around policies and practices. As a reader, personal narrative draws me in, and once I’d seen the video that Jocelyn shot of the girls together, I simply knew I’d be stepping out of my comfort zone – as always a print reporter – and challenging myself to learn how to tell stories using multimedia tools.

This is where my project partner Julie Mallozzi, a documentary filmmaker, comes in. I’d been introduced to her before we left in 2013 for China, and when I returned she and I got back together. I knew I would need help with video editing, and with Julie I got so much more than that. She’s become a TRUE and invaluable partner of mine in every aspect of this project. (her bio is on our website.) Like me, Julie’s films speak to core issues but do so through the telling of personal stories.

Also, as a reporter at Time, the reporting project that I’d felt made the most impact of any I did and also broke ground for the magazine was a story called “Through the Eyes of Children.” (FYI, attached to this email.) This experience had a profound affect on me, and it is one that very much informs that ways in which these stories are told, too. The premise to reporting Through the Eyes of Children had been that there would be NO voices of adult “experts” in the storytelling unless they are adults who play significant roles in the children’s lives. Everything else about their lives will come from observing their lives – very, very close up, including sleeping in the same bedroom with some of the kids, such as the three children who slept in one bedroom with their gun rack in West Virginia coal mining town.

As you ask this question, I realize I never thought of any other way to do this project except by have the core of it be the girls’ personal encounters.

One of the girls featured on the website happens to be your daughter, Maya. What was it like exploring Maya’s hometown and the girlhood she never had in China?

As I mentioned, I purposely WAS NOT with Maya (or Jennie) while they were exploring their town with the girls. Had I been with her, it would have changed the dynamics of the girls’ interactions simply by me being there. But to your main point with this question, often in the evenings I would watch video that Jocelyn had shot of the girls and it was an extraordinary experience to observe my daughter at ease with the girls and their families and seemingly at home in Xiaxi. I recall one night, in particular, when Jocelyn put on video she’d shot of Maya at the same marketplace where we’d gone when she was seven. Only now I was watching a teen hanging out with friends she knew in this same market, laughing, at ease, saying hello to people she recognized, and she was not in any rush to leave. I cried, only they were tears of joy. Later Maya would write in her college essay about how welcoming the people were to her and how she’d felt at home in this town she’d left involuntarily when she was 3 days old.

You traveled along with your daughter and another American adoptee to China as part of your exploration. Could you share one of your favorite moments from the trip?

Just mentioned one key moment, above, with seeing Maya with her friend Mengping and Mengping’s mother in the marketplace where nearly a decade earlier my daughter had been frightened. Among other highlights was when the girls from the towns decided to come into Changzhou, where we were staying in a hotel, and hang out together in the city. On these occasions, I’d get to spend some time with the girls and one time Mengping brought her mother with her, so mother-to-mother we talked about raising daughters, through a translator.

Do you or your daughter still keep in touch with the six Chinese girls you visited in China? If so, how are they doing?

Not with all six of the girls, but with two of them, one in Jennie’s town, one in Maya, we remain in close touch via WeChat. Over time, we’ve gradually lost touch with the others. It’s hard due to language challenges, the time difference and simply life moving on for on-going contact to happen. Do want to mention that in our sixth story, The Girls Reflect, which I will soon be up on the site, I asked Jocelyn to go back in 2016 to spend time with Jin Shan, one of the girls from Jennie’s town, and Mengping, the friend of Maya’s in Xiaxi. I am in WeChat contact with each of them as this story is being built and shared.

Your website includes a curriculum for schools who would like students to learn more about contemporary China, gender, identity, race, population policy and multicultural America. How have schools responded to the resources you provide?

Impossible question to answer since we’ve intentionally made our Lesson Plans (and stories and resources OPEN SOURCE (free to us, no paywall, and digital). This means no school or teacher has to let us know they are using our lessons or stories or resources. That said, we’ve workshopped Touching Home in China at more than a dozen national conferences (see attached list in a report to one of our funders, Mass Humanities), we received the endorsement of The National Council of The Social Studies, NCSS, and in November we will be presenting Touching Home in China at the national convention of NCSS. I am also slated to do professional development workshops with three school districts and two community colleges during this academic year, as well as a presentation for teachers in a seminar with the Five College Center on East Asian Studies at Smith College. In October, Touching Home in China will be co-presenting at the MassCUE statewide Digital Technology in Education conference with the Acera School where our lessons plans were used in the spring semester.

What do you hope people come away with from Touching Home in China?

Enjoyment of the girls’ stories. Fun dips into the video and interactive graphics to reveal something fresh. A feeling they’ve learned something new and/or come away with a change in their thinking about ideas and topics that perhaps they’d long held assumptions that turn out not to be quite what they thought. To appreciate similarities they might not have expected to find among these girls and discover the cultural foundations on which these girls’ lives and beliefs and ways of learning  are framed by the time they are teens.

For students to end with more questions than they began with – and dig into our resources, apply critical thinking to their inquiry, and emerge with new knowledge to inform their civic engagement in their Reflection and Action Projects tied to the themes they’ve explored.

I want them to find materials to build bridges of understanding and not be fearful of those who have learned differently than they do. I want them to explore their own identity, being aware of the how others see them and how they see themselves.

Jocelyn: You saved your toughest question for the last one – okay, deep breath, and as you can see, my responses are as varied and broad as our potential groups of readers. I know, for example, that adoptees from China take away very different impressions and experiences and feelings from this project, especially the girls stories, than will students whose lives have not been touched by adoption and enter into this project with no specific connection to China.

Yet, today students from China are in primary, high school and college classrooms with American students. They live together in dorms. They interact in workplaces. And on the larger global stage, China and America are global economic and military powers. For all of these reasons, and so many more, it is beyond vital and essential that students in American classrooms test their assumptions, challenge their biases, gather fresh knowledge and become engage civically in exploring topics that can prepare them better for encounters and friendships and work relationship they will undoubtedly have with colleagues of many different races and cultural backgrounds from their own.

LAST ITEM TO ADD: Aside from being a storytelling project created for digital native students, we expand our storytelling, our lessons and most of all our resources on a daily basis through our family of social media – Facebook (a large, active community), Twitter, YouTube channel and Instagram. From what I can tell, our social media platforms as a continuation of our storytelling and learning makes Touching Home in China unique among pathways for classroom learning about contemporary China.

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A big thank-you to Melissa Ludtke for this interview about Touching Home in China! You can visit the website at Touchinghomeinchina.com and follow the project on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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